Memorial Human Rights Centre: Drugs planted on Circassian activist Kochesokov for criticising the authorities

26 February 2021

Anti-extremism police were involved in fabricating the criminal prosecution

Source: Memorial Human Rights Centre

Memorial Human Rights Centre, on the basis of internationally accepted guidelines, has recognised Martin Kochesokov, a resident of Kabardino-Balkaria, as a victim of wrongful prosecution on political grounds. We believe Kochesokov, an activist of the Circassian national movement, is being prosecuted for his exercise of the right to freedom of expression. The purpose of these repressive measures is to stop his public oppositionist activities and his criticism of the authorities and to intimidate the public. We demand that the charges against Kochesokov be dropped and those responsible for his prosecution be brought to justice.

Who is Martin Kochesokov and what are the charges against him?

Martin Kochesokov, 32, is the leader of the Circassian non-profit organisation Khabze and co-chair of the Democratic Congress of the Peoples of Russia.

He has been charged with an offence under Article 228, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code (‘Illegal acquisition and possession of drugs on a large scale’). He was held in custody from 7 to 25 June 2019 and then placed under house arrest by a court. He has been at liberty but under travel restrictions since 23 August 2019.

On 7 June 2019 the activist’s car was stopped by traffic police. Special service police officers then forced him to lie on the road and handcuffed him. The officers recorded the seizure of 268.1 grams of marijuana.

The suspect’s fingerprints were found on the packets containing the drugs and traces of a narcotic substance were found on his hands. Tests showed Kochesokov had not consumed any drugs.

On 17 August 2020 Kochesokov’s trial began in Urvansk district court.

Why does Memorial believe the drugs were planted on Kochesokov?

The day after his arrest, Martin Kochesokov told the investigator the drugs had been planted on him and he had been forced to give a confession of guilt by beating. But the investigating officer, the defendant claims, replied that he ‘could not help.’ Kochesokov then publicly stated that he had been forced to incriminate himself. The court found his arguments weighty and transferred him to house arrest; two months later he was released but placed under travel restrictions.

Officers from the anti-extremism police department [‘Centre E’] detained Martin Kochesokov on a deserted stretch of road. He was forced to lie face down on the tarmac and his hands were handcuffed. Police officer M. Gonov stated that he was standing by the door of Kochesokov’s car and saw a package under the seat. However, ‘according to the protocol of the inspection of the scene of the incident, the package inside the car was not visible from where Gonov was standing.’ the judge noted.

The police officers admitted in court that Kochesokov himself, at their request, took a small packet containing the drug out of his pocket. Then, they took fingerprints from the packet, which forensics identified as those of the suspect.

The witnesses, it was revealed in court, turned out to be ‘witnesses’ used regularly in cases brought by the anti-extremism police department. An officer of the anti-extremism police department had taken them to the location of Kochesokov’s arrest, 40 kilometres outside Nalchik. Moreover, both witnesses are drug addicts who have been prosecuted for possession. We believe it highly likely that these witnesses are dependent on the police and are not ‘persons with no interest in the outcome of the criminal case,’ as witnesses should be according to Article 60 of the Russian Criminal Procedure Code. Therefore, their claims that a police officer took the bag of marijuana from under the car seat and that the two bags of marijuana were also opened by a police officer are unreliable. Martin Kochesokov insists that the law enforcement officers forced him to take them out and unwrap them himself.

After the ‘discovery’ of the marijuana, the police conducted neither a search of the car nor a body search of the detainee. It appears it did not occur to them to check, for example, whether there were more bags of drugs in the boot of the car. Evidently, the police were sure they had ‘discovered’ everything that could be of interest to them.

The only evidence Kochesokov picked the marijuana himself and kept it for six months was testimony which he retracted. Moreover, the testimony he gave is also contradictory: the report of his interrogation says Kochesokov kept the drugs in his car, but his initial confession states he kept them near where they grew. Martin Kochesokov retracted these statements in June 2019 and the investigation continued for more than a year afterwards. Therefore, the investigation had plenty of time to confirm the prosecution’s version of how the accused picked and stored the drugs. That this was not done is further confirmation of the defence’s version that the drugs were planted.

Why Memorial believes the prosecution is politically motivated

The claim that anti-extremism police received information that Kochesokov was involved in drugs is based solely on the words of Murat Gonov, an officer from this division. Moreover, the division’s mandate does not include combating drug trafficking. However, it is known to prosecute members of the opposition. Gonov indirectly confirmed this in court when, responding to a question as to why a report of the crime came to his division, he said: ‘He [Kochesokov] was engaged in civil society activities.’

A week before he was arrested, Martin Kochesokov made public a threatening visit his family had received from a local government official. His father explained in court that the visitor was Andzor Akhobekov, a deputy district head in Kabardino-Balkaria, who demanded that his parents ‘stop their son’s activities,’ or else he ‘would be jailed’ or ‘could go missing.’ Akhobekov said he had been ‘given instructions “from above” to talk to them.’ In court Kochesokov added that Akhobekov had then told him that his words at a round table were perceived by the leaders of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria as a coup attempt, that the ‘the three top people’ of the republic had summoned him [Akhobekov] and instructed him to inform Martin and his parents to ‘slow down his activities’ otherwise he would be jailed for 15 years or would ‘disappear.’ Akhobekov confirmed he had visited the Kochesokov family, but claimed this was on his own initiative (which does not seem plausible, in Memorial’s view) for a ‘prophylactic talk.’ According to Akhobekov, Martin spoke critically of the authorities. The official perceived this as a ‘threat to the constitutional foundations of the state and a danger for Martin himself.’

On 8 June 2019 Khabze’s offices were searched. Among the activists arrested was Azamat Shormanov, who said: ‘They asked us if we were involved with foreign agents and what the Democratic Congress is all about.’ Electronic media were seized both from Kochesokov’s home and from Khabze’s offices. In court, an officer of the anti-extremism police division refused to explain what this had to do with the drugs, claiming it was a state secret.

On 16 May 2019 Khabze and the Democratic Congress held a roundtable on federalism. During the discussion, some participants criticised the authorities and voiced the view that more powers should be delegated to the Federation’s constituent entities. In April 2019 Martin Kochesokov criticised the banning of a motor rally on Circassian Flag Day and the Russian authorities’ attitude towards members of the Circassian diaspora who return to the republic.

Recognition of an individual as a political prisoner or as a victim of politically motivated prosecution does not imply Memorial Human Rights Centre agrees with, or approves of, their views, statements, or actions.

More information about the position of Memorial regarding this case is available on our website.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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